The following post originally appeared on Medium.
Imagine being addicted to something and not even knowing it. That's what happened to me. And it's not even a somewhat glamorous addiction. I'm addicted to cream. Not whipped cream — the cream that you put on your skin. A steroid cream. Probably the lamest form of drug you can be addicted to.
When I was around 5, I was diagnosed with eczema — a skin condition where you get dry, itchy red patches on your body. It appeared on my hands, arms, back and legs.
The doctor said eczema was genetic and that they didn't really know why people got it. I was told that it was incurable. I would have eczema for the rest of my life. So they prescribed steroid cream as the solution.
Oh yes, the cream worked — I'd put it on and the eczema would go away. But it would always come back. And when it did, I'd just put on more cream. But the eczema would come back. Cream. Eczema. Cream. More Eczema. More Cream. Etc. This cycle went on for 16 more lovely years until one month ago, when I decided to stop using all steroid creams.
What made me decide to do this? Well, a couple months ago I was reading The Art of Seeing by Aldous Huxley. Huxley used unconventional methods to heal his eyesight. There was a quote about eyeglasses that stuck in my head:
"Suppose that crippled eyes could be transformed into crippled legs. What a heart-rending parade we would witness on a busy street! Nearly every other person would go limping by. Many would be on crutches and some on wheel chairs." — Matthew Luckiesh
True. Lots of people wear glasses. Lots of people with eczema use steroid cream. But not a lot of people walk around on crutches and never fix their broken leg. And that's when it occurred to me: my skin was broken, and the cream was a crutch! Why should I keep using the crutch when I could just heal my skin for good?
As I typed "how to heal eczema" into Google, I realized that I'd never actually done my own research before. I'd put 100 percent of my faith into what the doctor told me, and took her word as truth. (I don't think she had any evil intent. I think she was just doing what she thought was right — without realizing the damage.) Now I am not a doctor, and I'm not saying not to trust doctors, I just wish I had done my own research earlier.
I found something called topical steroid addiction. This is what I know so far — the steroids suppress your adrenal glands and make them lazy. The adrenal gland is responsible for producing cortisol, your body's natural anti-inflammatory. But when you start using steroid creams (cortisol creams), the glands stop doing their job because the steroids are doing it for them! Your body starts relying on the cream, and when you stop using it, the adrenal gland realizes it hasn't made cortisol for years . . . so your body cries out for the cream. It's explained very well in this video.
I found hundreds of stories of people just like me, who were using steroid cream for a long time . . . but no one was ever cured by it. In fact, it only made the eczema get worse and worse. People would get prescribed stronger and stronger steroids, and when it didn't help, some people even started taking oral steroids. But as I read these stories of people quitting the cream, I felt quite hopeful. I saw pictures of people fully healed and never having to use a drop of cream again.
At the same time, the journey to get there looked absolutely terrifying. Red, peeling, burning faces. People taking time off work and school. Being bedridden for months. Going through withdrawal took most people around 6-12 months. Some, even years.
Even though it looked scary, I knew I couldn't go on using the cream. I wanted to be cured, not on crutches. So I quit the cream. I went into what's called topical steroid withdrawal (TSW). And yeah, it is freaking painful; it's a total shock to your body. For the first three weeks, my arms burned bright red. They felt hot to the touch. It got so itchy I just wanted to rip my skin off. It's so depressing waking up, feeling ugly and disgusting, and seeing dead skin everywhere. I started everyday feeling like a crusty mummy coming out of the tomb after a million years. I avoided mirrors and I didn't go farther than five minutes from my house for three weeks.
I did try and go to doctors again. I told them about topical steroid withdrawal and about the red skin syndrome that follows . . . and they wrote me another prescription for steroid cream and said see you later. One doctor even told me to try oral steroids. None of the doctors would really listen.
I kept looking to the internet for answers. Since sleep was almost impossible, I started using night time as research time.
I've been hunting down every source on TSW I could find. I joined Facebook groups with people going through the same thing. Turns out there is a lot of us. Many people have similar stories, and many have it way, way worse than me. Even little babies are going through it. YEAH. BABIES. It breaks my heart to see all these people suffering, especially because this pain is preventable with just a little bit of research and caution.
What I didn't realize for so long is that eczema is only the tip of the iceberg. It's just a symptom of a much larger underlying problem.
Eczema was my body's way of firing off a warning sign saying "Something's wrong! Help!" But I just kept covering up that sign with more and more cream, because that's what I was told to do. I was just treating the symptom without curing the cause.
As it turns out, there is a huge link between your skin health and gut health.
It didn't even cross my mind that I might have issues with my digestion. But it does explain why I fart so much. So as I started to swim deeper down the iceberg, I discovered that the problem with my skin had to do with basically everything, including soaps and detergents I used, stress levels, and how much I exercised, but especially what I was eating.
Throughout this whole thing — there has been one especially inspirational dude I found named Rob Stuart. He used to have eczema too, and actually cured himself through diet and lifestyle changes. He explains how a whole food, vegan diet is the best for the body, skin, and digestion. It's not too big a transition, since I've been mostly vegetarian for about a year.
I don't believe in going too extreme any one way or another, so I took changing my diet slowly. I cut down a lot on eating meat, but I was still eating lots of cheese, eggs, and ice cream. I love ice cream. I never thought that dairy could be bad for my skin. My boyfriend is lactose intolerant and a while ago, he suggested for me to try cutting dairy out, because he used to have skin issues too when he ate dairy. This was even before I discovered steroid withdrawal and my gut issues . . . but now it all links together.
So to fix my skin and my gut, I've cut all animal products out, and trying to stay away from processed foods and refined sugars. I'm experimenting with what foods set my skin off — so far I'm not sure about nuts, tomatoes, and grapes. There are also foods high in histamines, which make you itch. There's a lot of information out there, but to really find out, I think I'm just going to have to slowly experiment on myself.
Two years ago I was the worst cook in the world. (Once I put a whole broccoli in the microwave and covered it with soy sauce for dinner.) I used to be terrified of cooking with more than two ingredients. Now I am cooking for myself almost every day, even using more than two ingredients. For anyone who's going to change their diet, I would definitely recommend an app called cronometer. It helps you make sure you're getting enough calories, proteins, & vitamins.
Even though going through steroid withdrawal is so painful and annoying, I'm glad it's happening. It's made me wake up. It got me to do research and question things, rather than believing everything I'm told. The fact that I thought eczema was incurable and genetic made me think that steroid creams were my only option. I never knew that diet had a connection with skin health. In school and on the TV, all I heard was that milk is a good source of calcium, and that it isn't a meal without meat. That meat = protein. The only source of protein. The meat and dairy industries have worked hard to get those messages in my head from a young age. They don't want people knowing the health consequences.
I didn't care what I was putting in my body. I just ate whatever, and my skin ate whatever. I didn't read labels on soaps or shampoos, or think about what the steroid creams were actually doing inside my body. I didn't think that not getting enough exercise would have an impact on my skin either. Turns out, everything is connected. The body, the mind, the environment.
The way you think about a problem affects the way you will treat it, and your surroundings change what options you think are available. When you walk into a grocery store and 60 percent of the store is dedicated to animal products, you assume it must be OK. When you go into the body care aisle or whatever and see all these products with a million chemicals in them, you assume they should be fine. Because it doesn't look like there are other options. But there are, you just have to look a bit deeper to see them. With the help of my mom I started making my own lotions, so I know exactly what is in them and can see how my skin reacts directly after.
It's been a month now, and since paying attention to what I'm putting in my body (both food and products), my skin has already improved so much. It's not perfect, I'm still eating processed foods like pasta, noodles, and soy sauce — but like I said I'm just doing the best I can for now. Amazingly, I had a full night's sleep last night. I know I'm not fully healed yet and that this is just the beginning, but at least I finally feel more in control of what goes on in my body.
All I wish is that someone had told me sooner to do my own research, rather than putting 100 percent of my trust into someone else. To look deeper and work on treating the root cause, rather than covering up the symptoms. I hope that anyone reading this who's suffering from eczema or any other skin problems will dig deeper. I know there's a lot of contradictory information out there — but when you start asking the right questions, you will find the answers.